Desperate council tenants are increasingly turning their spare rooms into CANNABIS FACTORIES in a bid to afford the controversial bedroom tax.
Worried town hall chiefs at Europe’s biggest local authority fear drugs gangs are targeting vulnerable residents and forcing them to grow marijuana to pay off debts.
Birmingham City Council sources and loan shark watchdogs say tenants hit by the change in housing benefit rules are renting out spare rooms to criminals to grow the Class B drug.
It is thought as many as 50 people every month - including pensioners and families with children – are turning to cultivating cannabis as they plunge deeper into red because of the rising cost of living.
Yesterday Tony Quigley, head of the England Illegal Money Lending Team, said: “Borrowers have been forced into criminality to repay their debts.
“Loan sharks exploit and extort borrowers, trapping them into spiralling debt.
“As a consequence of this there have been instances, across the country, where borrowers have been forced into criminality to repay their debts.
“We are continuing to crack down on loan sharks across the country and bring them to justice through the courts.”
A council source added: “Things are tough and renting out rooms is becoming more common and so is using properties which have been abandoned by tenants.
“Tenants take the offer because they need the cash.
“There is also a suspicion that they are being pressurised into it to pay off a debt to their dealer or to a local money lender.
“The people we are talking about are often very vulnerable, sometimes they are pensioners and I’ve also heard of families with young children agreeing to do the same.
“They have to put food on the table and they fell like they have no other alternative.
“There is also strong evidence that growers are forcing entry and stealing crops from each other.
“It means that many of the factories are discovered as a result of neighbours reporting people breaking into neighbouring properties.”
Birmingham City councillor John Cotton, cabinet member for social cohesion and equalities, said the authority was aware of the problem.
He said: “I have heard anecdotally about vulnerable people are being targeted in this way.
“Where there is evidence that this is happening the council operates a zero-tolerance approach to this kind of activity because of the impact it has on residents and communities.”
Earlier this year a council tenant was evicted from home in Bartley Green, Birmingham after police found potential ‘cannabis growing equipment’.
Omar Jones, 33, had his home seized in April after a judge ruled he had breached the terms of his tenancy agreement by setting up the legally-sold hydroponic plant growing system in his bedroom.
No drugs were found during the raid last October but police discovered a giant tent along with venting tubes, lighting, growing equipment and even pots for planting.
In one of the first cases of its kind in the country, Birmingham City Council began possession proceedings which referred to a breach of his tenancy – specifically stating that his property was being used for illegal and immoral purposes.
More than 500,000 tenants in the UK are now paying the ‘bedroom tax’ – which was controversially introduced by government in April this year.
Ministers argue the changes will encourage people to downsize to smaller properties and help cut the £23 billion annual bill for housing benefit as well as freeing up living space for overcrowded families and encouraging people to get jobs.
The government predicts that savings to the taxpayer will amount to £505 million in 2013-14, and £540 million in the year after.
But housing charities have warned that the result will be higher levels of rent arrears and greater homelessness